Review: Mellencamp/King’s ‘Ghost Brothers of Darkland County’

“Can’t you see how stupid this is? It’s not about anything,” shouts a character in the second act of the John Mellencamp/Stephen King musical “Ghost Brothers of Darkland Country” (whose tour launched from Indiana University Oct. 10.)

And by that point, I couldn’t help but agree with her. Not about the family argument the character was referring to but to the whole enterprise, a clunky stop-and-start musical where some solid music does nothing to enhance a contrived script.

 

At its core, it’s the story of Joe, the father of two squabbling sons (one a writer, the other a musician). Joe sees the writing on the wall for these two since his own two elder brothers died in a feud over a young woman (also dead) and Joe was a witness to what happened. This six-of-so-minutes of story is elongated by twenty songs, two framing devices, a pair of narrators and seemingly endless exposition. When all is eventually revealed, it’s done with all the subtlety of a Berenstain Bears book—although the reconciliation moment turns out to be, well, I’ll leave it there.

“Ghost Brothers,” which premiered in Atlanta in 2012, has been reconfigured into a hybrid of concert, old-time-radio show, and conventional musical drama—elements that never converge effectively. It’s well cast and the on-stage band is strong, but director Susan V. Booth hasn’t figured out a way to get Mellencamp’s mostly stand-along songs to merge seamlessly with King’s overly verbose book. Trimming isn’t just needed. Jack Torrance from “The Shining” should be called in to hack it with a hatchet.

The show, on a Midwest tour including Clowes Hall on Oct. 18 and a return to IU on Oct. 23, could use, among other things, a character or two to care about. It took me a good twenty minutes to sort out the relationships and two hours and 45 minutes (the show’s running time with intermission), to accept that I was never going to care about their fates. The minimal design esthetic does the show no favors, often leaving the onstage-the-whole-time cast with little to do but stand (or sit) and stare. The single backdrop and erratic lighting sometimes proved effective and other times had a whiff of Scooby-Doo about it.

The creators claim they’ve been working on the show for 13 years. I don’t believe in unlucky numbers, but there you go.

That being said, I’m looking forward to listening to the CD. Away from King’s book, I have a premonition that “Tear This Cabin Down,” “How Many Days” and “That’s Who I Am” could have an afterlife.

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